Lifestyle

Former student creates website for contacting representatives

Ryan Epp is using the old-fashioned lobbying method of strongly worded letters.

One day in January, Ryan Epp called Sen. Pat Toomey’s office more than 20 times, trying to voice his opinion about Betsy DeVos’s nomination as the United States Secretary of Education. When no one answered, he wrote his thoughts out in a letter.

Then he realized he had no stamps.

“I figured there would be some website I could go to that would send a letter for me, but there wasn’t,” said Epp, a former computer science student.

That was when Epp said he got one of his “wacky ideas,” and he decided to create Snail Mail Congress — a service that sends a physical letter to representatives. A week later, the site was live.

For $1.28, people can upload a short, personal message addressed to their representative on the website, and Epp will format, hand-seal, stamp and mail the letter. The cost goes to supplies like envelopes and stamps. According to Epp’s website, he does not profit from the service.

Snail Mail Congress was created in January, about a month before Toomey faced public criticism for not answering constituents’ phone calls. In February, Toomey hosted a telephone town hall to answer questions, which was accidentally broadcasted from a Temple Police Code Blue Emergency Phone on 15th and Jefferson streets.

The project is based out of Lititz, Pennsylvania, but Epp said he has mailed letters to senators across the country like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Epp chose “snail mail” because representatives are more likely to read a handwritten letter than something sent virtually, he said. He added that he has a third-party service to help him mail letters if too many requests come in, and he recently bought a bigger mailbox because of increasing demand.

Steven Kelly, Toomey’s press secretary, wrote in an email that he believes that phone calls, emails and letters are all equally effective when constituents try to contact their representatives.

“For the convenience purposes for a constituent, using the website to send a email (sic) is my recommendation,” Kelly wrote.

Mitchell Sellers, a political science professor who teaches the class American State and Local Politics, said constituents should focus on key points that are important to them when they write letters to their representatives.

He said a representative’s staff members will often explain the major points in their constituents’ letters.

“Staffers will get the initial look at your letter,” he said. “Your representative might look at it, but it’s more likely that they won’t.”

Jon Geeting is the director of engagement for Philadelphia 3.0, an organization that backs candidates running for City Hall to “lead efforts to reform and modernize” city government, according to its website.

He agreed that using a personal message is best when reaching out to representatives. Geeting said civic engagement is the reason the American Health Care Act — the piece of legislation proposed to replace the Affordable Care Act — wasn’t passed.

“I know Pat Toomey hasn’t been that responsive to constituents calling him, so if you take town halls or phone calls off the table, the next most effective way is sending a physical letter,” Geeting said.

Epp said he created the bipartisan service to get more people involved in politics. For the 2016 general election, 64 percent of Philadelphia’s registered voters participated — a percentage lower than the turnout for the 2012 and 2008 election.

“People consider politics to be just voting and that’s your only duty,” Epp said. “I think it should be a year-long engagement, not just stopping at the elections.”

Megan Platt can be reached at megan.platt@temple.edu.

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